The Anne Lamott effect and “earth crammed with heaven”

Reading ‘Travelling Mercies’ by Anne Lamott quietly changed my life. Not because it was so soaringly uplifting in the way I expected but because it painted such a real canvas of who we are as deeply flawed and unashamedly beloved. I realised that God doesn’t expect superheroes from us. He isn’t default: mad, and maybe I could stop default: staring at my feet in shame at the fact that He’s mad.

This may sound like a pretty obvious revelation but it was for me a timely and much needed reminder of our broken-beautiful, desperately in need of grace. I think I’s climbed a little too far inside a religious box.

A few days later we walked past the man in front of the court building, and these ideas were brought very painfully into technicolor. The thing is, I hadn’t even noticed him. Five of us were walking back to the office and Beth noticed that someone was lying in the heat on the stone steps in front of the magistrates court. He was in a thick winter coat in blistering heat and was having a seizure of some kind which meant he was banging his head against the concrete floor.

Beth must have run to him immediately because then we all followed, wondering what was going on. As she reached him she knelt down and spoke gently to him, reassuring him that he wasn’t alone.

As the seconds unravelled, it was funny how all of us, each with unique personalities, reacted in completely different ways.

Malcolm began asking the court security staff in a tone hotter than the temperature why no one was doing anything when he was on their doorstep. Murmurs from them about how ‘he is there all the time’ and ‘there’s nothing we can do with junkies like that’ were hollered down by Malcolm’s indignation.

Lisa, ever the naval officer and mum crouched beside Beth and began phoning 999, seeking advice on what to do and making sure that the medic on the end of the line to send an ambulance as soon as possible. No one could get a word in edge ways, but she is gifted at taking control and I was relieved she was there.

Stuart and I did what we could, holding an umbrella over him to try to shield him from the heat. But at the crux of it all was my paralysis. I was terrified. It was so much, so huge, so violent and so overwhelming. I had to swallow fast and blink back tears of disbelief. A crushing realisation of my own helplessness turned all my limbs into dead weights.

But Beth knelt, quiet and without fuss on the floor next to his head. His hair was unwashed and there were boils covering his hands and his scalp, infected and releasing pus, alcohol fumes thick in the midday heat – and she sat amongst it all. She placed her hand under his head to stop it from hitting the ground, and didn’t flinch each time it hit against her with real force.

And it was amazing what this did; how this released others into grace and compassion. Security guards previously standing stoically by now came, one bringing a glass of water, another removing his jumper to be placed under the man’s head to relieve Beth’s hand. Another came and began talking to him, stroking his arm and telling him everything would be okay, the doctors are on their way.

And I was blown away. While I had been at a loss for what to do in this situation, Christ had manifested Himself so clearly through my friends. I will never forget seeing Beth kneeling down and pouring out Love from a deep and familiar place of self sacrifice. She knows what it is to lay herself down. I have so much to learn from her and feel blessed to be able to walk alongside her, my good Samaritan teacher, in this season. To say she doesn’t know Christ would seem so at odds with her very being.

Earth is truly “crammed with heaven” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledged so long ago. And we all bear the image of our Maker. 

I think sometimes my focus has shifted too far towards deciphering who the Samaritan is and who the man on the roadside is. That immediately creates such a dualistic vision of what ‘should’ be done and by whom in any situation. Oh yes, Lord have mercy.

What Beth reminded me that day was that at the heart of Jesus’ message in the parable which mirrors this story is an invitation for us to live the question ‘who is my neighbour?’

No barriers. No self-constructed modus operandi. No paralysing expectations of superhero behaviour. Eyes which are open, a heart which is soft and hands which are ready to take the bashing of a head against concrete. Because there is always grace, and always a jumper on its way.

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One thought on “The Anne Lamott effect and “earth crammed with heaven”

  1. Just wow. You write so beautifully, that I feel I am standing right alongside you, umbrella in hand. This is such a stunning insight into a life that is filled up with Jesus, seeing with his eyes, reaching with his hands. x

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